Saturday, August 29, 2009

Take a walk on the wild side

Saturday, 29th August. COP Wilderness, Paktia Province.

What started as a normal day ended with total exhaustion, revelation and I daresay it was one of the most physically trying day in a long, long time.

So finally my orders came through and I was to get on a convoy which will take me to another outpost before being picked up for my final destination: COP Wilderness. As the name suggests it’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Our departure was delayed due to an ambush on the mountain pass but eventually we rolled out but at about halfway to the pickup point we had to dismount because an overturned truck had blocked the road. Now this was at the beginning of the KG Pass, the mountain pass that leads to Khost Province, and the terrain was rocky and steep. Well, the US Army, in its infinite wisdom, decided that instead of waiting we would climb down, over said rocky and steep terrain, to meet up with our pickup vehicles. This is where the fun part begins!

When your body hits the tender age of 40 and above it tells you every so often and this was one of those. I was fortunate that someone volunteered to carry my main pack and I was left with my small pack jammed with an extra camera, lens, hard drive, a laptop and a bunch of other shit. Now add on the body armor with protective plates, helmet and a main camera and you get the picture. It was downhill all the way, literally! My knees were trembling and weak, my breath came in short gasps, and I felt like puking. All the good living in Beijing with minimal exercises and outdoor activities has taken its toll on me. Plus being 44 didn’t help. It took forever to get down and all the while you worry about getting shot at. Granted I had Uncle Sam keeping an eye on me but that didn’t dispel my worries.

Finally I made it down without tripping, falling, puking or passing out. Walking to the waiting MRAP with wobbly legs, I told myself perhaps this should be my last embed ‘cos whether I care to admit or not, this is a young man’s game. Or maybe I’m just a whimp…

Friday, August 28, 2009

A bakery in Kabul

One of the many that you will find in Kabul. They are friendly and very curious about outsiders.

FOBs, COPs and waiting..

Friday, 28th August, FOB Gardez

BAF = Bagram Air Field (main US base in Afghanistan)
COP = Combat Outpost
FB = Fire Base
FOB = Forward Operations Base
PB = Patrol Base
PX = Post Exchange. A store at a US military base selling food, clothings, etc.

Nothing to do but wait… Sometimes the military is a lot about waiting and for journalists going to different bases in eastern Afghanistan, it’s mostly waiting for clear weather in the mountain passes and sometimes the availability of Apache gunships escort into hot zone. One Italian journalist was apparently stuck at a FOB for 10 days before he got a ride out and he spent most of it watching movies (I heard about 4 movies a day). Now that’s legendary!

Most bases, with the exception of small COPs and FBs, are pretty well set up. There is usually a small PX, barbershop, cafĂ©, a recreational room with Internet and phone facility (aka MWR), and a gym. Of course the further away one gets from the main hub the more ‘primitive’ it gets. As such, waiting is not such big deal but the boredom can be very trying.

Once you get to your assigned base things begin to get much better as you settle in and get to establish some sort of routine. Now you would think that it’s action time but the reality is that on most days, you go on patrols or attend a local tribal meeting and then return to base all tired, dusty and hungry and realized that you have nothing much to write home about. In other words, reporting from the frontline is never a guarantee for action. However, having said that there are bases that get shot at every other day and I guess you would spend half the time keeping your head down. So take yer pick!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dear Mom: War is Hell!!

War, indeed, is hell on earth... Today, I learned that a young soldier I met in May on my last week of the embed was killed in action in July. He was young, easy going, and always with a ready smile. He was one of the first soldier I photographed when I was attached to Charlie Platoon in COP Herrera. Today, I pay my respect and tribute to Nicolas Gideon, a young lad sent to a foreign land to fight a war that shouldn't have been and didn't make it home. Today is the first time someone I know died a combat death... May Gideon's soul rest in peace.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Election Day Photos! Finally!

It's not always easy to stand aside and be unable to do anything except record the sufferings around one. - Robert Capa

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Back in Afghanistan!!

21st August 2009, Kabul

Finally, I'm back in Afghanistan and enjoying my first few days in Kabul. I honestly didn't know that I would be back so soon...ok, I lied because I think maybe I did plan to do so sometime before 2009 makes an exit! :D

Anyway, after visa hassles, bummed flights, expensive overseas calls, stressful days and nights later, I finally found myself on a flight from Beijing to Urumqi (Xinjiang) and a connection to Kabul. That is currently the best connection for those living in China without having to go through a third country. Don't ask me why Urumqi, of all the places, but it is an odd choice and the Afghan national airline flies there once a week. Another airline, Kam Air, just started its Kabul-Urumqi route only to have its inauguration flight turned back by the Chinese authority en-route with no explanation except for a ‘possible bomb alert’! Isn’t life full of zeal and fun?!

20 August - Election Day

Well, I arrived to the eerily quiet streets of Kabul and no incidents were reported except for one shoot-out in the morning. The low turnout by voters was a disappointment for almost everyone concerned and but not surprising considering the fact that the Talibs threatened voters with violence… Anyway, here are some photos and I did get my 15 mins of 'fame' and rub shoulders with presidential candidate, Abdullah Abdullah. He's running against current president Kazai and they both just declared victory... Oh, I neglected to mention that the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan just started so that means no water and food for most of the day. *sigh*